Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Alinea 6: The stacked sphere

A tradition in India is the tiffin, a stacked metal contraption holding a series of compartments that allow the transport of the many components of a proper Indian hot lunch. The nearly error free delivery of tiffin containers without the use of computers continues to be the subject efficiency research, but it is the structure of a tiffin container that I am invoking. Despite possibly holding multiple sections, a sealed tiffin is a standard sized cylinder with a handle. As we began our next course in Alinea, we were presented with a rather large while ceramic ball, which had an indentation on top. And within that indentation, lay a beautifully decorated scoop of rutabaga gelato, atop some kind of herbed gel. The attention to detail of the small garnishes is really quite impressive.

After we at that, the top hemisphere of the ball was removed to reveal that the interior housed some steamed and fried rutabaga, apparently cooking within as we ate the chilled version of the vegetable. Notice that the food sits atop a slotted platform.

That's because what was steaming the dish was yet another version of rutabaga, cooked in cream and onions, texturally soft, but savory only in the way a root vegetable cooked in milk can be.

I enjoyed this progression of treatments of rutabaga, moreover how the whole thing is carefully calibrated in temperature and insulation to be revealed in time for eventual enjoyment. Ceramic affords this progression like no metal tiffin can, but should be interesting what Mr. Achatz can do with it.

Previously on this series:

Alinea 5: The Ikea Course
Alinea 4: Clarity
Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cleansing what?

This being the week for Thanksgiving in the USA, one of the few times of the year when home cooking is celebrated, and gluttony is given a free pass (nay, it is expected), I'd like to write about cleansing.

Often referring to The Master Cleanse, this is an all liquid diet regimen that purports to allow one's body to be purged of "toxins". During the course of a cleanse, the practitioner subsists primarily on a dilute concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. While there are those who buy into the idea that the human body accumulates unnamed toxins that can be cleaned out by starving yourself for a period of time, most I think undergo this regimen simply as self-inflicted penance for a period of overindulgence.

I don't think this practice is altogether healthy, but for the average Western first world individual, replete with all the bounty of an indulgent lifestyle, a little deprivation centers oneself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Impartiality in a restaurant review

An interesting debate is currently happening over Twitter, sparked in part by a comment in this posting on the Eating Out Words blog of the Houston Press. Namely, does participating in a media event for a restaurant devalue the opinion of a food critic?

It's an interesting conundrum. I, myself, have participated in a number of media junkets. Around this time last year was the most opulent outing arranged by Harrah's of New Orleans along with 8 other bloggers from the Houston area. That was a weekend which included meals at Emeril's Delmonico and John Besh's Steak.


Last month, I had the pleasure of being invited to Tony Vallone's new Montrose area restaurant, Caffe Bello. There, we were plied with so much food, even after a 3 mile walk, I was full through the next day.

In the modern age of ubiquitous communication and computing, restaurateurs are wising up to opportunities in new media. Old school criticism relied on anonymity, and a certain number of visits to account for the atypical experience, but this may be a promise difficult to keep in the era of Google and live tweeting. Indeed, the stricture of impartial judgment emerges from the fact that control of communication used to be held by relatively few people, and, paraphrasing Stan Lee, great responsibility comes along with that great power.

By staging such media events, restaurants are taking a proactive gamble: instead of being judged on a typical day, they'll put their best food forward immediately, when they are ready and at their prime. While a thumbs up in such a situation should be interpreted with a grain of salt (after all, finding the will to be truly critical while being feted is difficult), a misstep is disastrous.

Then again, perhaps we are worried over nothing. After all, with the barriers to self publication so low, where hordes of Yelpers, Facebookers, and Twitterers reporting on a meal as it is being chewed, concealing a potential food critic in the crowd may not be an issue. Nothing can keep a kitchen on its toes as the realization that every client, as petty and as unreasonable as they may be, can also voice their opinions online. Perhaps faster, if a little cruder.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart, pretty and talented

Appropriate to the season, pie baking is all the rage. Much of the debate centers on what kind of fat to use (lard has its proponents), but in this video, Joanne Chang demonstrates frissage, a technique of smearing dough on a surface to create an extra flaky pastry in the end. I also didn't realize that she is a Harvard graduate who went through something like three different careers before settling in on her love of pastry and baking.

A well produced video, even though it really is a commercial for King Arthur Flour.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There's a waffle in there somewhere

It sounded like a good idea at the time. The hour was late, and we made our way over the 24 hour NY inspired restaurant Katz's on Westheimer near Montrose for some dessert. Maybe it's the levity of the occasion, but I decided on ordering the Belgian waffle with ice cream. I mean, yes, it could double as breakfast, too. Right?

What arrived was a plate piled high with neon white "whipped cream", and streaks of that obnoxious goo that covers strawberries. Somewhere in there was a blob of industrial ice cream. And perhaps the saddest waffle I have ever encountered. First of all, it was by no means a Belgian waffle. Soggy, tasteless, it bore no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Don't fall for this pricey trap if you do go to Katz's. Stick to the cheesecake milkshake if you must.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Alinea 5: The Ikea course

The waiter brought us a plate each, on top of which were arranged these artfully sliced and prepared items. Mise in place, I suppose. The green balls are honeydew melon. There's a dollop of hot sauce on a spoon just out of frame. There's that one lonely curl of coconut. On the watch glass appears to be a slurry of lime juice and basil seeds. But, lo, this platter conceals a hidden compartment, for once the white surface is moved off, the wooden base has carved space in it, holding a strange metal contraption. We were instructed to assemble into a holder.

Remember the tapioca sheet from earlier?

Turns out it wasn't simple table decoration, but was to be draped atop the contraption. Into the sheet was dolloped a lump of pork belly cooked in coconut milk, and we were to adjust the flavors with the accompanying ingredients.

Now this strategy hearkens back to southeast Asian cuisine, where a number of adjustments are usually offered to the diner, far beyond the simple salt and pepper shakers, to adjust the flavors to the diner's liking. Anything from chili pepper infused vinegar to a squeeze of calamansi or a dash of pungent fish sauce makes every plate an individual canvas.

Problem here is, well, we have one, maybe two, bites. We have to guess without tasting as we go.

So, most diners dump everything in. And for the most part, the flavors chosen are proven complements, so there's no harm in that. Not sure why the basil seeds are in the lime juice, I think the gelling effect blunted the already timid lime. I think it needed more acid to counteract the richness of pork belly cooked in coconut milk, more aggressive citrus may be a good idea. Yuzu, perhaps?

Previously on this series:

Alinea 4: Clarity
Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts

Monday, November 8, 2010

Straining the definition

“Watch this.”

And with those words, Chef Seth Seigel-Gardner (now of Kata Robata) sprayed out some batter from a pressurized charger, stuck it into a microwave, and a minute later, was plating a light cake, warm and fragrant.

What he was demonstrating, of course, is that cakes and pastries do not have to be baked. In fact, this is a common theme all over the world. In southeast Asia, steamed cakes are quite the norm

I procured these steamed cakes from a local Thai shop, but an entire set of cuisine called kuih in Malaysia exist for these types of colorful and flavorful cakes. Most kuih are steamed, but they don't necessarily puff up like the heat stabilized foams conventional cakes are known to be. Once freed of the need to even use wheat flour, kuih can be gelatinous, or multitextural, depending on the starch and ingredients used, and can be sweet and savory.

Perhaps the most ornate example of a steamed cake in this tradition is the Korean mujigae ddeok, here demonstrated by the lovely and talented Maangchi.

Funny, but it's definitely possible to have a bakery without actually baking. Granted, the point of dry heat baking in an oven is the creation of a caramelized flavor possible from crust formation, but if you can't bake, well, you can roast a cake.

I'll have to hand it to inventive Japanese manufacturers to take an obscure German baking technique, and make a mass marketed packaged product with it. That's actually available in the large Asian megamarts in Houston. Chalk one up for globalization.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Puffs three times

In the past, Jell-O would advertise its products with pictures of these ornate multilayered colorful creations, ostensibly to show off the creative potential of artificially colored sweetened gelatin powder. But market research demonstrated that these ads didn't work because people would try to create the same things at home, and they got depressed when it didn't come out looking quite as good. Notice that nowadays, all they show are simple mounded up servings - because that's what people really do at home.

In general, when I go to a restaurant, I avoid looking for items that I can easily execute at home, I seek out that mythical ornate Jell-O creation that evades my home kitchen conveniences. Indian chaat snacks fall in this category easily; aside from requiring a large number of ingredients, cooking them involve multiple stages for the components to produce the range of flavors and textures.

To wit, the dahi puri.

At it's most basic, the dahi puri is based around a puri, a puffed up fried pastry shell, filled with any number of seasonal ingredients. Traditional additions are potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas, onions, cilantro, sev, tamarind chutney, spicy green chutney and yogurt. Yes, all those things. But when presented with all these components, there are several permutations to them.

I went to explore dahi puri at different local restaurants. First up, local vegetarian favorite Shri Balaji Bhavan.

Presented on a stainless steel platter, the dahi puri here is a merry mess of crisps, spice, and yogurt. Barely manageable for eating with bare hands, it's homey in it's chaos, and shareable only with others you are intimate enough with.

Over at Bombay Sweets, the dahi puri acquire some individuality.

The tamarind chutney here is quite a bit sweeter than most places, and an almost shocking red color. And despite being presented on a disposable plate, the snack remains satisfying. I'm not a fan of putting yogurt on top of the sev, as it makes it soggy, but it's a minor quibble.

However, the artistry is evident over at Sweet n Namkin.

Beautifully assembled individual bites, this is India's answer to the nigiri. The puri shells here are strong, lasting minutes longer than the others, and you can happily present these as party hors d'oeuvres.

And watch people giggle happily as the riot of textures and flavors explode in their mouths, with something a little too big to fit in one bite, but can't be eaten in two.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cook on one side

Lately, I've been enamored of broiling vegetables. Well, fruits really, but the kind that are usually classified as vegetables. It's remarkably easy, and works for such things as eggplants and zucchini. In this above pictured case, I gilded the lily by glazing with shiro miso and a touch of mirin.

Basic strategy: take the eggplant (I had small variegated eggplant, but Japanese eggplant work well here) or zucchini (hopefully not too big), cut in half lengthwise, and score the cut surface. Lay down on a pan, and rub or brush some oil on it, and sprinkle with coarse salt. Put under a hot broiler.

If glazing, mix some mirin, miso, a bit of sugar and vinegar together into a sauce, and when the vegetables have caramelized a bit, brush on the glaze. Return under the broiler until the glaze has caramelized. Sprinkle with some sesame seeds, and you're ready to go. No need to turn it upside down.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Alinea 4: Clarity

Following our jaunt through faux Asia, the staff at Alinea put down these pillows in front of us. As I debated taking a snooze the table, these large square white plates were put on those pillows.

Turns out the pillows were filled with the aroma of cut grass (from an air freshener can? Maybe they extract it from patches of wheatgrass), and the weight of the plates are so calibrated to force it out as we dined, thus perfuming the air. In this dish, we are presented with a salad of heirloom tomatoes, but like in no form I've seen before. At least one was cut so thinly, it was like it was painted on the plate. Accompanied by items like olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, and onions, although again, those agents were freeze dried or otherwise transformed to change the salad eating experience. The flavors, however, remained familiar. I'll admit that the aroma effect was subtle, if at all memorable. Then again, of course, one desensitizes to a particular smell in about 15 seconds, so I'm not sure if the gimmick is meant to last.

That was followed by this palate cleanser. An aqueous distillation of the flavors of Thailand: from fish sauce to lemongrass, one could really taste the components. It's not much to look at, but I think this was one of the more successful and inventive items to hit the table. We marveled at how one could cram so much complexity into a clear water based liquid, but the staff wasn't telling.

Previously on this series:

Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts